The East Los Angeles Walkouts(or Blowouts) became the largest high school student protest in American history and the first significant mass Latino protests. It involved thousands of students from East Los Angeles high schools walking out of classes in 1968 to protest substandard and discriminatory treatment of Latino students and their schools.* Among the key organizers of the protests was Lincoln High School teacher Sal Castro, 34, and Moctesuma Esparza (then age 19), one of the few Latino students at UCLA, who already had been an activist in East L.A. schools since 1965 and was actively organizing Latino college students. Other key organizers were Lincoln High School students Paula Crisostomo, Boby Verdugo and Yoli Rios, Garfield High student Harry Gamboa, Jr. and Brown Beret leader Carlos Montes.
By 1968, frustrated at being ignored by the Los Angeles Board of Education, East Los Angeles students and activists called for a boycott of schools in East Los Angeles. Organizers planned for a massive boycott of schools to begin on March 6. On March 1, 1968, however, 300 students at Wilson High School initiated the first, but unplanned, walkout. This was instigated by the principal’s refusal to allow a student-produced performance of the Neil Simon play, “Barefoot in the Park.” Wilson students were not even among those originally planning a walkout. By March 5, some 2,000 students at Garfield, initiated the first planned walkouts, prompting school authorities to call in police. The next day, 2,700 Garfield students walked out again and continued walkouts through March 8. Roosevelt High School students initiated their planned walkout on March 6, climbing over locked gates meant to confine them to campus. Because frustrated authorities could not seem to stop the walkouts, police stepped up arrests and inflicted severe beatings. On March 8, Belmont High School (Downtown Los Angeles) students attempted a walkout, but, with police allowed onto campus and without any adult protection, students were severely beaten and arrested before even being able to leave campus. Despite a heavy presence of local and national media, none of the police violence was reported. By March 8, Lincoln and Jefferson High School students also joined the walkouts and rallied at Hazard Park with fellow protestors from other campuses. On March 11, about 1,500 students from Venice High School, a mostly white school about 20 miles from East Los Angeles, joined the protests and walked off their campus. In the end, although every effort was made to dissuade and bully student protestors, an estimated 15 to 20,000 students walked away from seven high school campuses. They were joined by college student activists, parents and members of the militant Brown Berets. From the viewpoint of some in Los Angeles establishment, including Los Angeles Mayor Sam Yorty, the walkouts were seen as part of a “communist plot.”
On March 11, students, teachers, parents and activists who had formed the Educational Issues Coordinating Committee (EICC) met with the Los Angeles Board of Education to ask for a community meeting to present a list of proposals for resolution. When the board agreed to such a meeting for March 28, students agreed to return to school. On March 28, more than 1,200 people attended the community meeting at Lincoln High School and heard the EICC present a their list of proposals. Although the board did not outright reject the proposals, they claimed that a lack funds prevented the proposals from being implemented. At that point, the EICC and students walked out of what turned out to be an anti-climactic event.
On March 31 (prom night), 13 walkout organizers were arrested and charged with conspiracy to disrupt public schools and disturb the peace. A conviction on the charges carried the threat of serving up to 66 years in prison. The arrestees, becoming known as the East L.A. 13, were Sal Castro, Moctesuma Esparza, La Raza newspaper editors Eliezer Risco, 31, and Joe Razo, 29, Brown Beret “ministers” Carlos Montes, David Sanchez, Ralph Ramirez and Fred Lopez (ages 18 to 20), Carlos Muñoz Jr., 20, Gilberto Olmeda, 23, Richard Vigil, 27, Henry Gomez, 20 and Juan Sanchez, 41. Protesters immediately launched demonstrations outside the Los Angeles Hall of Justice. Black civil rights activists, Students for a Democratic Society, Senator Robert Kennedy and Cesar Chavez offered support for the protests. The Chicano Legal Defense Committee and American Civil Liberties Union stepped in with legal assistance.
Soon after, the arrestees were released on bail except for Castro, who faced the most charges. Protests continued outside police headquarters until Castro finally was released from jail on June 2 with bail. He found that he no longer had a teaching job, though, because school authorities used his arrest on felony charges to justify dismissal. This led protestors to launch 24-7 sit-ins inside the meeting room of the Los Angeles Board of Education. Police arrested protestors for trespassing, taking 35 people into custody. The board, nevertheless, relented on October 2 and restored Castro’s job. His reinstatement, however, did not bring any forgiveness from school authorities with it. For the next five years, Castro endured frequent reassignments away from East Los Angeles and schools with significant Latino populations. He finally landed a consistent assignment to Belmont High School in 1973 where he was able to finish out his teaching career.
In 1970, the California Court of Appeals struck down all indictments of the East L.A. 13. The two-year focus on their legal defense, however, shifted attention away from the problems at East Los Angeles schools. The EEIC itself came apart as internal conflicts arose within the committee. There was some degree of disillusioned among East Los Angeles students the event appeared to have accomplished little. Change did begin to come, however slow, to East Los Angeles schools. Perhaps, the most immediate positive outcomes from the East L.A. Walkout was the empowerment of the Latino community, a cessation of corporal punishment, and a dramatic increase in higher education opportunities for Latino students.
Among the participants in the walkouts was Victoria “Vickie” Castro, a California State University, Los Angeles, student in 1968. She and one of a number of college students were involved in coordinating and assisting the walkout. Castro went on to become an educator, school principal, and, in 1993, the second Latino elected to the Los Angeles Board of Education.
* East Los Angeles high school students in 1968 suffered an average reading level of 8th grade, average class sizes of 40, high dropout rates as high as 45% at Roosevelt and 57% at Garfield, and a ratio of one school counselor to every 4,000 students. In addition, students faced openly bigoted teachers, corporal punishment for speaking Spanish at school, little to no encouragement to prepare for college, substandard school facilities (especially as compared to schools in more affluent areas), locked restrooms during lunch periods, and inadequate custodial staffing (making school custodial work a disciplinary tool).
Sources: Rebecca Contreras, East Los Angeles Students Walkout for Educational Reform, Kelly Simpson, East L.A. Blowouts: Walking Out for Justice in the Classrooms (KCET), Louis Sahagan, They Faced 66 Years in Prison (LA Times), 1968 East LA Blowouts (Weebly), The Walkout — How a Student Movement in 1968 Changed Schools Forever (United Way), East L.A. walkouts (Wikipedia), East L.A. Blowouts (True Vista Latina).